Having walked many, many miles around Oak Park the past 30 years, I’ve become a connoisseur of sidewalks. There is more in them than meets the eye.
Oak Park is a pedestrian-friendly town. On almost every street, there are two sets of sidewalks, divided into squares — thousands of squares, each a unique canvas. When I walk, I look around, but just as often I look down, my head tilting as I follow a train of thought or take a deeper dive and lose myself in the stream of consciousness.
So I’ve studied sidewalks for three decades and, as an object of contemplation, they are more rewarding than you might imagine. What initially seems blandly uniform is anything but. Concrete has gone through stages — from coarse, dark and highly textured to fine-grained, white and smooth. Sand and pebbly gravel was the formula once upon an earlier time. Some actually include seashells, the sand coming from some forgotten beach on some forgotten shore.
Not all of our sidewalks consist of concrete. Sandstone panels and even slate slabs survive, recalling a era closer to the beginning of the last century, closer to the founding of the village itself in the 1800s.
As squares crack and decay, they are replaced, hence the variety. Walking some blocks is like tracing sedimentary layers of the earth itself — or a museum exhibit on concrete’s evolution. We take for granted the flatness of our walkways, but the remarkable power of tree roots can dislodge these slabs like some annoying nuisance, creating trip hazards, though municipalities now have machines that grind down the protruding edges, flattening them back into conformity, exposing a patchwork of imbedded stones, mosaic-like beneath the surface.
Concrete when it’s wet is irresistible, judging by the imprints left behind, from shoe prints to paw prints to squirrel tracks to leaf fossils. If you appreciate textural diversity, Oak Park sidewalks offer a smorgasbord. If you pocket your magic rectangle and do nothing but look at the sidewalk, you will find beauty as well as mystery.
Mystery, you ask? Yes, because there is also a fair volume of sidewalk script if you care to decipher it. Humans being immortality seekers, initials are legion, sometimes united by plus signs, proclaiming coupledom. In the newer pavement where Rick Meegan’s newsstand operated for many decades, tucked under the overpass away from the elements near the corner of Oak Park Avenue and North Boulevard, Greg and Flo Wood left their marker. Close by, fans of Iron Maiden, Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin (abbreviated to Led Zep) attest to someone’s faithful fandom. Along Erie, north side of the street, near Kenilworth Avenue, “Ginkgo Tree B&B” testifies to the former use of the grand Victorian on that corner and the giant ginkgo tree in the backyard. Makes a wanderer wonder about the backstories.
Most mysterious of all is the inscription located 14 squares west of Oak Park Avenue along Erie, north side of the street, north edge of the square:
“I still love Nan”
Why “still”? The word stands out.
Who is/was Nan? And who scratched this in the wet cement, helpfully dated to August of 1977, almost a half-century ago? Someone saw a fresh square of concrete and an opportunity. Something so private, yet so public. Was Nan present when he did it (presuming “he”) or was she already gone? Was the author thinking about the past or the future? Maybe he looked at her and said, “When someone spots this 40 years from now, if I’m still alive, I will still love you.” Has that prophesy come to pass?
Whatever the circumstances, “he” felt strongly enough to set his love in stone. Not forever, but as close as we come — until the square is replaced or the words erode to illegibility.
Does he, in fact, still love Nan? Does Nan still love him? Are either still alive?
Was she already dead — perhaps tragically and too young — and he could no longer hold his emotions in? Did it console him every time he passed this way or did his feelings fade over time? Would he shake his head when he saw it, amazed by love’s youthful intensity? Did he eventually stop looking as he passed? Did he leave a single blossom on the grass, unobtrusively honoring her memory or the memory of their love?
Or did he move away and never see those words again? Did she move away, then return much later in life, and come across the message, never having known it was there, at a loss over how to find him?
Maybe the story is less romantic. Perhaps they broke up years before, but he never quite got over it and needed to leave this message behind, frozen in time.
Four words that seem to say so much.
Ernest Hemingway, famously known for being a writer of few words, once responded to someone’s challenge to write an entire novel in just six. Here’s what he came up with:
“For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”
It breaks your heart, and the novel writes itself in your mind — or tries to. Hemingway described his literary efforts as the tip of an iceberg, 7/8ths of which lies beneath the surface, unspoken.
“I still love Nan,” a four-word novel etched in concrete. I suspect it was written by a young man, but a friend believes it was an old man at the end of a long, loving life together. Only death could part them. He had a hard time getting down on his knees to inscribe the words, but he had to.
He just had to.
Because the only thing greater than the intensity of youthful love is the depth of long-lived love.
Forty-three years have passed. For 30 of those years, I walked past this square on my regular path without noticing it.
Who says sidewalks aren’t romantic?
Happy Valentine’s Day.